How Elvira Became the Queen of Halloween

If you want to see horror pinup icon Elvira perform at famed California Halloween haunt Knott’s Scary Farm, you first must cross the theme park. There is no way to go except by passing through one of the “Scare Zones” — interstitial areas where performers jump out at you between the long lines for rides and haunted mazes. To get to Elvira, you have to cross Ghost Town Streets, the park’s faux Old West mining town. Industrial-strength party fog makes it so you can barely see in front of you, as actors playing spooky Western archetypes lunge at you or silently lurk behind you. Getting scared for fun is all about titillation, and so is Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the vampy stage persona of Cassandra Peterson.

Peterson has been playing Elvira for decades now: on the small screen as a “horror host” cracking jokes about campy old horror movies, on the big screen in her 1988 film Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and onstage every October at Knott’s Scary Farm. This, however, is the last year Peterson is doing the stage show, hence the title — Elvira’s Last Show.

By the time I get to the Charles M. Schulz Theater, where Elvira’s Last Show plays twice nightly, I am loopy with adrenaline and excitement. The line extends all the way past the bumper cars. There are several Elvira superfans, wearing winged black eyeliner and horror-themed attire. The theater is completely full as the lights come down and dancers dressed as gravediggers stalk down the aisle. They dig up an unholy grave onstage, but when Elvira arrives, it’s in her trademark 1959 black Thunderbird “Macabre Mobile,” which she drives onstage.

It is impossible not to talk about how hot she looks.

The show is a brisk 30 minutes of jokes and stage spectacle, featuring Elvira-specific parodies of songs like Madonna’s “Burnin’ Up” and Great White’s “Once Bitten Twice Shy.” Elvira lays on a velvet chaise lounge to narrate a career-retrospective video. She is tied to a stake and threatened with witch burning. The show’s climax involves the ultimate practical special effect: Elvira expertly twirling the nipple tassels on her rhinestone encrusted bra. Naturally, she receives a standing ovation at the end. I spoke with Peterson earlier that day about closing her Scary Farm show, how she made it from teenage Vegas showgirl to eternal queen of Halloween, and why retirement is the last thing on her mind.

Is it always this crazy?
Yeah, it’s always this crazy. I love Halloween, but I sort of dread it coming because I do about nine-tenths of my work in the period of 45 days.

What does a day consist of?
Well, right now I get up usually early. I do drive-time interviews at 7 a.m., do that for a couple of hours, and then basically just go back to sleep and wake up in time to go to get ready for my show. I do the two shows, and then by the time I get back to L.A. it’s about 3 a.m. So I get to bed about 4 a.m. and start over again. So man, I just feel like I haven’t slept in a month.

You probably haven’t.
I get kind of worn down physically and it’s a bummer, you know? ’Cause the shows are pretty strenuous.

How many years have you been doing the Scary Farm show?
I started in 1982, but in that period, I’ve done 21 years. There were some years, like the year I had my daughter, I wasn’t able to do the show. And then there were a few years where the park was taken over by a new company and the company did not hire celebrities to do the show, so there was a policy of that. Then the park came back under new management and they reinstated that idea. Anyway, 21 years out of — God, what is that, 1982 to now? 35 years?

How long have you been doing the Elvira character?
Since 1981. I started one year before Knott’s.

How long does it take you to get into the costume?
It’s like a two-hour process, getting dressed and makeup on and getting the hair on. RuPaul came and saw the show last night, and he and I sat there for about an hour just bitching about all the hair and makeup. He’s a good one that I can commiserate with ’cause I certainly feel like I’m getting in drag. Lotsa hair, lotsa makeup.

All these people always say, “Oh, why don’t you come and do this show? It’ll only take you 15 minutes.” And we’re like, “Yeah, 15 minutes, right.” You know it’s the same amount of time to get ready for 15 minutes as it is for ten hours. People don’t exactly get it.

Do you ever fall asleep in the costume?
Oh God, I would love to. I can’t! It was funny, we were talking about this last night too, about when [RuPaul] is shooting. He’s shooting for like a 15-hour day. I was telling him about when I did my film, I would be so desperately tired but I couldn’t lay down because I’d screw up my hair, you know? And the same with him. We were trying to figure out ways you could sleep without putting your head down, which is pretty difficult.

Is the costume very binding and tight?
It is. It’s super uncomfortable. It’s hard to breathe in it. So falling asleep in that whole getup is just not really possible.

Is your house very goth and horror? Or do you try to keep it separate from your work stuff?
You know, it’s funny, I went through the whole goth horror house thing. I had this really fabulous house called Briarcliff Manor that was up in the Hollywood Hills, which strangely I later sold to Brad Pitt. The house at that time was very goth. I had a big huge iron gate that was shaped as a spiderweb with a big spider on it. Brad still kept that; he covered it with canvas. But the whole inside of the house, I collected goth and spooky items and art. I still have the collection, but I’ve kind of separated myself from living the full 24/7 Elvira. My house now is pretty cheery and white, but I do have a lot of skulls and skeletons and spiders and black cats. They all kind of mix into that cheery look too.

California goth.
Exactly! California goth! You just coined a new phrase. I’m stealing that!

No, you invented it!
That’s the perfect name for it. ‘Cause it’s very white and light, and then these little items that are subtle little devils.

You want the devils, but you also want the light to come in through the window.

I saw that are you a redhead naturally?
I am!

So am I, actually.
Oh good, we’re lucky right?

Have you ever dyed your hair black?
Oh man, I think I did once when I was in junior high and I got in really serious trouble for it from my mom. I thought I would dye it black for Halloween, I don’t know. I thought black hair was cool. I had everything black. I had the walls of my bedroom painted black, which, by the way, is a very bad idea because you attract every spider a mile around. But I did dye my hair black, and oh my God, I got in such trouble with my mom. It was a semi-black color so it was gone pretty quickly. I just stuck to the red from there on out.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Kansas and I grew up there on a farm until I was about 7. And then my family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I stayed until I was 17. And then I moved to Vegas.

What prompted you to move to Vegas?
I just had this big dream of being a showgirl in Las Vegas. I had seen this movie with Ann-Margret, who was my idol because she had red hair and she was super sexy. She starred in this movie with Elvis Presley, who was my big love idol back then. So I saw this movie Viva Las Vegas and I got this idea in my head to become a showgirl like Ann-Margret. The next thing you know, my parents were on a vacation and took me and my sisters to California, but we stopped in Las Vegas. I begged them to let me go see one of those shows with them. So I dressed up to look super old and sophisticated, you know, like I was actually old enough to get in to see the show. I put on all kinds of wiglets and eyelashes and a push-up bra and I went to see the show. I guess I had so much makeup on that the dance captain came out and asked me if I’d like to audition for the show the next day.

Oh my God.
It was the weirdest thing that ever happened. My parents were in shock, they thought it was a joke. I was in shock and then I broke down and told them, “I’m only 17.” I thought I would get arrested, but instead I did the audition and they hired me and I said, “How am I going to be in the show when I’m 17?” They had my parents get a lawyer and sign a document and I was able to go do it. I wasn’t able to enter the hotel, except through the back through the kitchen. I couldn’t drink or gamble or go in the casino, but I could dance in a G-string onstage. Very, very strange.

What casino did you work at?
I worked at the Dunes hotel and casino, which is long gone now. It was the most popular show in Vegas, honestly. It had won the award for best show in Vegas, I think ten years running. It was called “Vive Les Girls.”

And did you get to meet Elvis?
I did, I did. Elvis came to see the show. It was so bizarre. I got to meet Ann-Margret. I got to meet Elvis. I mean, my whole movie fantasy came true. Imagine if I would have seen some other movie, oh my God. But yes, I did meet Elvis. He actually convinced me that I shouldn’t be in Vegas, and that it wasn’t a good place for a young girl and that I should get the hell out of there as quickly as I could. I was kind of disappointed because I thought had reached the pinnacle of showbiz, and he was telling me, “No, no, no, you got to get out of there.” When advice comes from Elvis, you tend to give it more weight, you know? You take it more seriously. So he and I sang at the piano and he said, “You know, you have a decent voice. You ought to go get some singing lessons and maybe get into another aspect of showbiz.” Well, I did. I went out the next day and I got singing lessons and I got a part in my show singing very soon after that. When my contract expired one year after the date that I had begun, I split and I went to Europe and ended up singing in a band over in Italy.

What was the band in Italy called?
It was called “I Latins Ottanta” which really means The Latins 80. It was like a pop cover band. A little bit like Brasil ’66. It had a little kind of Latin beat to it. But we also did all the popular American hits that were out at the time and just changed the lyrics to Italian. I traveled all over Italy and learned to speak Italian and it was a fantastic experience.

So it was La Dolce Vita?
Yeah! I actually ended up working in a film of Fellini’s, speaking of La Dolce Vita. I met Federico Fellini on the street. He was filming a movie and he thought I looked like his wife Giulietta Masina when she was young and asked me if I wanted to be in the movie. So I got a part in the movie Roma. It was bizarre.

That’s amazing.
It was amazing. I don’t know, I had these strange things happen to me when I was a kid and growing up. Thinking of things and then they kind of happen, manifesting things. That’s why I tell people, “Be careful what you think, ’cause you might end up getting it.”

And then you went to California for the first time?
Well, roundabout. I ended up coming back to the U.S. and working at the Playboy Club in Miami Beach as a singer and dancer in a show for about a year. And I met a guy, my first big long-term boyfriend. He convinced me to move to Hollywood with him, where he lived. I moved to L.A. with him when the show closed and I decided I was going to become an actress, so that’s when I started getting into the whole L.A. acting scene and realizing that I couldn’t be a dancer forever. Dancers’ careers are really pretty short-lived. Although I did get a few dancing gigs on The Sonny & Cher Show and Tony Orlando and Dawn.

As a go-go dancer?
No, then I was a regular dancer. Like modern jazz. But before I went to Vegas, I was a go-go dancer. From the time I was about 14 ’til I went to Vegas, I was go-go dancing in nightclubs in Colorado. Actually, all over that area: Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska.

And you could get into the clubs okay?
Well, I was only like 14, 15, 16 and I was dancing there. Don’t ask me how. I also had a driver’s license when I was 14. I look back on that and I’m like, “How was I driving to Nebraska?”

You had a plan.
I did have a plan. And I also had a fake ID.

That’ll take you really far as a 14-year-old girl. So you were auditioning for stuff in L.A. and you were also modeling?
Yeah, I did a lot of modeling in L.A. I did everything and anything I could to make some money. I did modeling for Playboy Models — people confuse that with just modeling in Playboy, although I did model in Playboy and Oui magazine back then. Playboy Models was sexy girls in photo shoots, usually with like a car part or a washing machine. But we’d be wearing a bikini, or silver lamé shorts and a bra top. It wasn’t the super-slender fashion-model type. It was the more va-va-voom modeling jobs.

Like glamour modeling.
Yeah, like glamour modeling. So I did that part time. I went on auditions for acting. I became a photographer, started shooting my girlfriends for glamour modeling for magazines that I would sell their pictures to. I had part-time jobs as a temporary secretary. I did everything and anything to pay my rent, you know? It was hard when you’re on your own and you have no other money and nobody else supporting you. Certainly my parents weren’t. I did every little job in Hollywood I could think of to try to get by.

What do you love about Hollywood?
To me, it’s like my little neighborhood. It’s like a little town within a big city. I’m just so familiar with it and I have so many friends there and it’s a very close-knit community. It’s very diverse and interesting and it attracts a lot of really creative interesting types — a lot of crazy people too. I just feel really at home there.

I moved once when I got all hoity-toity. I decided to move to Brentwood after I was Elvira and I had some money, and I only lasted in Brentwood a few months. I was like, “Get me the hell out of here!” The vibe there was so, ewww, I don’t know. It’s a very beautiful place and there’s a lot of nice people, but it’s very …

White and boring.
Very, very white and very entitled. I just never felt like I was a part of that. I got straight back to Hollywood.

Do people recognize you when you’re just walking around?
Rarely. Only if I’m at a venue where they’re expecting me to be. Maybe if I’m at a convention or something and I go out to a restaurant. But in general, no. People are recognizing me more the past few years, but in general, I can just walk around and look like a skank and nobody notices.

I saw that some people think you were on the cover of the Tom Waits album Small Change. Is that true?
That might have been one of those glamour modeling jobs I was talking about, but I don’t remember doing it! You know, really, I don’t remember a lot about the ’70s. It’s true. I remember the ’60s and the ’80s and I sort of skipped over the ’70s.

That means you were there.
Wouldn’t you think you’d remember taking an album-cover shot with Tom Waits? I did a lot of music videos for people, like Hall & Oates and Al Cooper. I see them pop up all the time and I’ll go, “Oh my God, there I am!” in this old-timey MTV music video. But I do not remember the Tom Waits thing. I have to say, that picture does look like me. Although, honest to God, I think my boobs were better than that, but okay, whatever, it could have been me.

So this is the last year that you’re doing the Scary Farm show?
It is the last year. I’m torn about not continuing to do it, but the live show is just a hard thing to do. The older you get, the harder it gets to do. I have to give props to Cher. My God, the woman is what, 71 and she still does the show? I don’t know how she does it. I just do it once a year and I’m working on it for three months. If I did it every day, maybe I’d build up more stamina. But I only do the actual show for six weeks and it just takes a lot out of me.

Do you write it?
Oh yeah, I definitely write it. I have a writer, Jackie Beat, who’s a very famous drag queen. Jackie helped me write it this year and last year. She did a lot of the song parodies and all of that. But yeah, I came up with the concept. And I work with everyone — the director and the costume people and the lighting people — on what the show’s going to be, what songs we’re going to do. The finer details are taken care of by the writer and everyone else on the staff. But it’s a three-month-long job to get it together.

You’re not retiring the character, right?
Exactly. Everybody keeps thinking I’m retiring. I’m not retiring. Actually, one of the reasons I’m not continuing the show is that I have a lot of other projects I’m working on. One of them is a live-action television show, one’s an animated TV show project, and one’s my autobiography. And I just don’t get the time to really seriously sit down and concentrate on those. So I’d like to get those projects done while I’m still alive. I’d like to also finish the show going out on top, and not keep doing it until I run it into the ground. It’s been pretty crazy this year. It’s been a completely packed theater every night. Even when the numbers at the park aren’t so high, the show has been sold out. Every single seat.

Do you feel like there will be horror host characters in the future?
Well, I’m hopeful that there will be new ones. There’s some very funny, cool ones online, but it’s tough for them. It’s been tough for me, ’cause you can’t get those old films the way you used to be able to get them. Now they’re owned by big studios. They have control of them and they made these film packages very expensive. Unless you have a really big budget, you have a really hard time getting the films, so that makes it difficult for anybody being a horror host. I hope it comes back, and I hope it continues happening online or wherever it can happen. But like it used to be? I don’t think that’ll ever come back.

I saw you did some hosting for Hulu a few years ago.
Yeah! That was awesome. I loved doing that for Hulu. We were able to get a package of films that wasn’t exactly what I normally host, but it was still a great package of films from Charles Band. We were able to negotiate a price and do those films. I could do this every day of my life if I could get the films.

How do you relax when the show is over?
Oh my God, I can’t wait ’til November 1st. Everyone says, “I bet Halloween’s your favorite day of the year.” I say, “Actually, November 1st.” No, just kidding. I love Halloween. I’ve loved it all my life. I’ve been a Halloween freak since I was a young child. But after Halloween, I am taking a road trip up the coast. My daughter lives up in Seattle, so I’m going to go up there and visit her. I look forward to that — just driving and stopping wherever I want and not worrying about having to be somewhere at some time, and not wearing any makeup.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Elvira Became the Queen of Halloween